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Present day, Charleston, South Carolina, Earth
Something was wrong. She could feel it.
And feelings were not something Serenity June Woodson usually had, or paid attention to.
Okay, that wasn't strictly true. She had plenty of feelings, Seri told herself as she circled her rental car around the crowded downtown block again, searching in vain for a parking spot. Just not those kinds of feelings. You know, those woo-woo, New Age, "Irish Gift" kinds of feelings. The kind with which her Aunt Tildy made a living at the Second Sun Crystal and Tarot Salon, bless her eccentric heart.
Come on, come on. After a third circuit of the area around Queen Street, Seri jetted out an impatient breath, gave up and headed for a nearby parking garage. She had to hurry!
Aunt Tildy had phoned her last night all upset because someone had stolen her favorite necklace. Favorite being an understatement. A huge understatement. In truth, the unusual star-shaped gold-and-gemstone necklace hadn't left its place of honor around Aunt Tildy's neck for over forty years. Forty-two to be exact. Ever since the fateful night she claimed it was placed there by
Yeah. Well. Never mind who it had been placed there by. Aunt Tildy was prone to bouts of imagination. Vivid imagination. After all, look how she made her livingreading tarot cards and telling peoples' fortunes. Yes, okay, if Seri were completely objectiveand Seri was always objectiveshe'd have to admit her loveable aunt had an unusual knack for predicting the future. Sort of. Still, you couldn't take a lot of things Aunt Tildy said seriously.
Which was why Seri hadn't taken it very seriously last night when her aunt had told her not to come to Charleston, that she was going to report the robbery to the police, and besides, she had a new friend who was going to help her check the pawn shops and antique dealers to try and find the priceless necklace.
Hello? A new friend?
Seri quickly locked the car and hurried toward Queen Street. What new friend? Her aunt wouldn't even tell her his name. That's right. His name. Good lord, it had been forty-two years since Aunt Tildy had gotten involved with a man, and she was still pining for the jerk. Somehow that long-ago con man had convinced her he was a prince from another planetof all the ridiculous nonsenseand when he'd left her behind, a tearful and heartbroken twenty-year-old girl, he'd actually had the gall to tell her that one day he'd return to Earth to fetch her.
Talk about your vivid imagination.
And your naive gullibility.
Thank goodness it wasn't the same guy who'd returned. Still, Seri wondered who this new con man was that her too-trusting aunt had gotten herself involved with. Not that she wasn't always enmeshed in one craziness or another, but this time Seri was genuinely worried. On the phone her aunt had sounded different. She'd been frantic over the loss of her necklace, and yet, she'd also seemed excited. Because of this mysterious male friend?
Naturally, Seri had jumped on the first flight from Phoenix to Charleston that morning. Despite the denials, her aunt needed her. This necklace meant more to Aunt Tildy than anything else in the world. And she had always been there for Seri, through thick and thin. Especially through thin. The least she could do was return the favor. Ever since speaking with her yesterday, Seri just couldn't shake the feelingan instinctthat something momentous was about to happen, and that she had to get to the Second Sun Crystal and Tarot Salon to stop it. Quickly.
Ducking into the shady, arched French-Quarter-style passageway between the Thin Man Art Deco Gallery and the Old World Rare and Antique Bookstore, she almost stumbled over a homeless person sitting against the cool brick wall, his ragged belongings in a black plastic bag next to him.
"Oh! Sorry, didn't see you." She skirted around his Air Jordans as he mumbled an apology for blocking the passage, then raced precariously over the uneven cobblestones past Madam Clarissa's Palmistry Shoppe. Rushing along the path of lush foliage, she finally reached the entrance to her aunt's tarot salon, which was situated at the end of the quaint, flower-filled courtyard. And was brought up short.
It was closed.
A hastily scribbled note was taped to the pretty, multicolored stained-glass door: Gone to the hoosegow to report a theft. Will return when I return. May the stars guide you!
Anxiously, Seri glanced in through the sidelights. Everything looked just as it should inside. Peaceful. Orderly. No sign of anything amiss. She looked up and checked the second-story windows of the apartment where Aunt Tildy lived over the salon. One of the casements was open to the cool courtyard air, a curtain fluttering out from it in the slight breeze, along with a drift of patchouli.
No noises. No screams. No con men.
Aunt Tildy was fine.
All the anxiety whooshed out of Seri on a relieved exhale and an embarrassed laugh. So much for instincts.
This was why Aunt Tildy was the psychic, and not her.
She really should just stick to her science experiments. Logic and reasoning, those were the only things a person could truly depend on. Seri had no business acting on impulse or fuzzy, nebulous "feelings." She knew better.
With a relieved smile, she shook her head over the imagined urgency she'd felt earlier. Utter nonsense.
But she wasn't sorry she'd come. Her summer vacation had started just last week and she always loved coming back to Charleston, where she'd spent a good deal of her childhood with her favorite aunt both before and after her mother died.
And there was still the matter of Aunt Tildy's missing necklace and her mysterious gentleman friend. Was there a connection between the two? That definitely bore looking into.
She was trying to decide what to do until her aunt returned from the police station when her eye was caught by the array of round black buzzers that lined the side of the shop door. Doorbells. Next to each of them was a small hand-painted ceramic label.
"Oh, for goodness' sake," she murmured with a chuckle. She'd almost forgotten about those. Meant for Aunt Tildy's after-hours tarot customers, all of them rang a different note on the bell in her apartment. The thing was, they were the only buzzers, so all visitors, even family and friends, had to use them. And ever since she was a child, Seri could never decide which one to press.
She read over the choices on offer today.
The first one said, Press me if you're feeling blue. That one had always been popular. Especially when she was little and wanted an infusion of her aunt's famous chocolate-chip-and-secret-ingredient cookies. She'd never found out what the secret ingredient was back then, and nowadays she was afraid to ask. After all, Aunt Tildy still drove a VW bus decorated with big, bright flowers .
The second button read, Press me if your goal is fame and fortune. That one had been Seri's favorite during her college years. Ha. She was now a high school science teacher with no Nobel Prize in sight. 'Nuff said.
The next buzzer declared, Press me if you seek to find happiness and true love. She let out a soft snort. Don't think so.Aunt Tildy always said that true love was written in the stars. But in Seri's experience true love was about as likely as Tildy's alien prince being real. Despite the terminally bad example her commitment-phobic, largely absent father had set for her, she had experimented with the male species in college. Lord, what a colossal waste of time! She'd got a bigger bang from her science experiments, with far fewer side effects. She might have pressed that buzzer a few times in high school, but now? Not a chance.
The fourth one stated, Press me if revenge or protection is your greatest wish. Yeah, that one had always mystified her. Well, other than the time in the seventh grade when Ashley Hendrick stole the plans to her baking-soda-powered booster rocket and won the science fair with it. She probably wouldn't have said no if someone had offered to blast Ashley into outer space after that. Heaven protect her from cheats and liars.
The fifth and last buzzer was labeled, Press me if you long to be reunited with the one you loved and lost.
Whoa. That was new.
Occasionally Tildy changed up the labels, just to keep visitors on their toes. But rarely did a completely new one appear. Usually only when Tildy herself was going through some sort of mini-crisis. Having her treasured necklace stolen probably qualified. Seri just prayed her aunt wasn't once again mooning over the "alien prince" who had given it to her.
Stifling an uncharitable growlokay, maybe revenge wasn't such a strange conceptshe was grateful she didn't have to press a buzzer at the moment. She really hated that Aunt Tildy made you choose. As a teacher, Seri always gave her students the option of "none of the above" on tests.
With a self-deprecating sigh, she shook her head. God, why did she always, even now as an adult, think of this stupid buzzer thing as a test? Why did she always take it so damned seriously?
"Didn't find a choice you like?" a deep voice said from behind her.
Startled, she swung around to see a tall figure sprawled negligently on the carved wooden garden bench in the middle of the courtyard, observing her.
And it was decidedly not Aunt Tildy.
Seri swallowed a gasp of surprise then a gasp of something quite different.
Good grief. This male wasobjectively speakinggorgeous. Nothing like the dull, insipid specimens she'd met in college.
Tanned and broad-shouldered, his body was muscular, his face lean, expressive and angular, with a definite air of authority. Hair the color of gold dust was just a little too long to be truly civilized. And his smile the only way to describe it was knowing. She didn't usually go in for blond men, but this one Lord, can you say "bad boy"?
"II, um " Had he asked her a question?
That knowing smile curved up ever so slightly. "I take it you're not looking for love?"
She straightened. "Excuse me?"
He rose to his feet in a lithe movement that seemed to make the air around him shimmer. "The doorbells."
"Oh," she said, squinting at the odd optical illusion. But it had vanished. Strange.
He gazed at her expectantly.
Right. The doorbells. She forced herself to look at them, struggling to gather her badly scattered wits. Something about this man rattled her to the core. A feeling No, I don't do feelings. An aura, then God, even worse.
"What can I say?" She managed a weak laugh and glanced back at him, startled to find he was standing right behind her.
"There are never enough choices."
His smile curved even more. "Never the right one," he agreed, tilting his head. "I'll bet I can guess, though."
"Oh, really?" At the moment she wasn't even sure she knew what the right one would be.
Her breath stalled as he reached for herthat is, past her, and opened the door to the Second Sun.
"You came for a reading? Tildy isn't here at the moment, but I'll do one for you." Then, as though he were a mind-reader instead of a tarot card reader, he added, "I can tell you all sorts of things you don't know."
"I I'm not" she stammered like an idiot, taking in the unlocked door with an inkling of suspicion. "You work here?"
"Not exactly." He motioned her in first, and she fully intended to refuse, but strangely, when he put his fingers lightly on the small of her back, a tingle shivered through her whole body and in that dizzy sensation she completely forgot her objections to being alone with him.
He followed her inside. "I pitch in whenever Tildy needs a hand. I own the bookstore." He jabbed a thumb at the Old World Rare and Antique Bookstore on the street side of the courtyard. "But I have a manager to watch things for me. Carch Sunstryker" he introduced himself with a disarming smile "at your service."
She was still recovering from that touch on her back, so when he extended his hand she really didn't want to risk touching him a second time, but for some reason her body was not obeying her today.
She put her hand in his, and was saying, "Seri Woodson," when sure enough that tingly sensation quivered straight through her again, knocking the polite, "Nice to meet you," right out of her mouth and leaving her more than a bit shaken. And stirred, too, for that matter.
"Ah," he said, giving her another bone-melting smile.
"Serenity June. Tildy's niece."
She didn't know what was happening to her, but whatever it was, she didn't care for it. With a concerted effort, she withdrew her hand from his before she did something monumentally stupid. Like melt in a puddle at his feet.
This was ridiculous. She didn't do simpering, eyelash-batting female. She didn't do men, for crying out loud. Remember the college experiments!
"Just Seri," she corrected briskly, and tucked her hands under her armpits, safely out of danger. "Any idea when my aunt will be back?"
For a moment he gazed at her with that annoyingly knowing smile on his perfectly sculpted lips, then he pursed them as though trying to decide lord knew what.
"Soon," he finally said. "But for now" He swept his hand toward the back room where Tildy's tarot table was set up behind a theatrical black velvet curtain. "Shall we?"
Alarm sifted through her. "Shall we what?"
But he just smiled.